Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Unbearable Bassington – “Saki” (H. H. Munro)

I’ve enjoyed the short stories of Saki for a long time without really knowing much about him beyond the Wikipedia basics and I hadn’t really associated him with novels until I saw Capuchin Classics were publishing ‘The Unbearable Bassington’ last year. As luck would have it (but not perhaps for Capuchin’s coffers) I found this penguin edition at exactly the same time but it’s taken until now for me to read it.

I have no shortage of unread books to hand but it’s been a struggle to find something to suit my mood for the last week or two so the reason I picked this up was because it was short. It turned out to be an excellent choice, Saki has the gift of being both very funny and almost unbearably sad at the same time (the ending had me in bits) although now I want more of the same which might be a problem.

‘The Unbearable Bassington’ in question is (presumably) a youth called Comus who is more force of nature than boy, a fated lord of misrule who sails through his school days care of good looks, undeniable charm, and sufficient sporting prowess. Post school and the world isn’t quite so kind to Comus; there are no shortage of charming young men on the town and neither he or his long suffering mother have any money, Comus needs to contract a decent marriage as the chances of him making any sort of hand at a career are slim. Unfortunately he blows it in the marriage stakes through sheer perversity which leaves him with but one option – he’s exported to West Africa in the traditional manner of black sheep in the age of empire.

The other Bassington is Francesca a woman who is commonly held to have no soul – instead she has a drawing room – an ordered peaceful place where all her household gods are laid out. The affection between Francesca and her son is real, neither is much given to loving others but both care deeply for each other despite the barrier that’s grown up between them. This coldness is due almost entirely to the nature that Comus can’t help but have: “Fate played him with loaded dice; he would lose always.”

‘The Unbearable Bassington” was first published in 1912 and reads as both an attack on and an elegy for the society it portrays. Saki must I think have known war was coming (He wrote ‘When William Came’ – an imagining of London occupied by the Germans a year later) with hindsight it certainly reads as if he realises that this particular society is all but done with. There are constant pokes both at the vapid nature of society gossip and the patronising futility of good works (my favourite being this: “No one has ever said it,’ observed Lady Caroline ‘but how painfully true it is that the poor have us always with them.”). Perhaps there is a sense of frustration too at a society that produces boys like Comus who have no conceivable use in the world (except they are destined to become cannon fodder very soon) and no means to live on.

If the plot is a little depressing the one liner’s that litter every page are perfectly polished gems sparkling like nobody’s business making the book a joy to read. Capuchin have done us all a favour bringing this back into print, it’s a remarkable little book that deserves to be rescued from obscurity.


  1. What a coincidence - this week I finished reading The Unbearable Bassington too, and in exactly the same edition! I agree with everything you say, basically, especially about the last chapter - came out of nowhere, and some of the best writing I've read in ages. That last scene... I'll be writing a review at some point - and I picked up a copy of this that had a bunch of short stories too, which I'll be giving away.

    And last week I bought When William Came. So we'll see what that's like.

  2. It's an odd good book alright. I think I've got 'When William Came' in a collected works so will aim to read it soon as well.

  3. You have shamed me into remembering that my Saki collection has been languishing on its shelf for much too long. And what a shame this cover didn't make the Penguin postcard box!

  4. Get it out Darlene (the Saki obviously!) it's well worth a read

  5. Have just read this and will be posting soon. In tears at the end, the unutterable sadness of it all. Bowled me over

  6. Elaine - I'm looking forward to reading your and Simon's thoughts. It's amazing what we have just sitting on the shelves waiting to be discovered sometimes.